Iran releases five American detainees in prisoner swap

Five American citizens who had been held in Iran for years arrived in Doha on Monday as part of a deal with Tehran in which the US also released five Iranians as well as $6 billion in frozen funds.

The group exchanged embraces with the US ambassador to Qatar, who met them on the tarmac at Doha airport after they arrived from Tehran, in a poignant moment that closes a chapter on a lengthy push to free them.

“Siamak Namazi, Morad Tahbaz, Emad Sharghi and two citizens who wish to remain private will soon be reunited with their loved ones after enduring years of agony, uncertainty and suffering,” US President Joe Biden said.

“As we celebrate the return of these Americans, we also remember those who did not return.”

A plane sent by mediator Qatar flew the five citizens and two of their relatives out of Tehran soon after both sides received confirmation the funds had been transferred to accounts in Doha.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry said earlier that the prisoner swap would take place once the frozen funds had been released. Funds held in South Korea were expected to be in Iran’s possession on Monday, ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said.

Mr Biden called on Iran to confirm the fate of Robert Levinson, an American who was taken into custody in 2007 and whom the US believes died in prison prior to 2020.

“The Levinson family deserves answers,” the US President said as he announced new sanctions against former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence for their involvement in wrongful detentions.

Mr Namazi, who was held from 2015-2023 at Iran’s notorious Evin prison, issued a statement thanking those involved in his release.

“For almost eight years, I have been dreaming of this day,” Mr Namazi said.

“Now that it is finally here, I find my ineffable joy of my forthcoming reunification with my family is laced with sorrow – a painful and deep feeling of guilt for taking my breaths in freedom while so many courageous individuals that I love and admire continue languishing behind those walls.”

It was not orchestrated as some way of reproach a rapprochement with [Tehran]

John Kirby, White House National Security spokesman

The former detainee described his time in Evin, saying that he experienced “the worst of humanity every day” and that his captors “epitomised the baseness of humanity.”

He paid homage to fellow inmates and said the Iranian regime “revels in the endless depth of its gratuitous cruelty”.

White House National Security spokesman John Kirby said the deal did not signal improved ties with Tehran and confirmed that the US had hit Iran with new sanctions.

“We secured this deal simply … to get these five Americans home. It was not orchestrated as some way of reproach a rapprochement with [Tehran],” Mr Kirby told CNN.

Mr Kirby said that of the five Iranians who had been held in the US, only two would return home. Two others were expected to stay in the US, and the fifth was going to a third country.

The prisoner swap has been heavily criticised by Republican politicians who claim Iran could use the unfrozen $6 billion to fund its weapons programmes or to support proxy groups fighting in other countries.

Mr Kirby said Iran will not be able to “get hands on this money” but could request withdrawals for humanitarian goods, whose supply would then be overseen through US-managed contracts.

If the money is seen to being used for other reasons, the US can “lock it back down”, he added.

Families of Americans wrongfully detained abroad gather in Washington – in pictures

iran releases five american detainees in prisoner swap

Elizabeth Whelan holds a picture of her brother, Paul, who is currently jailed in Russia. All photos: Willy Lowry / The National

iran releases five american detainees in prisoner swap

Family members of Iranian-American businessman Emad Shargi, who has been detained in Iran since April 2018, speak in front of the White House.

iran releases five american detainees in prisoner swap

Ariana Shargi, daughter of Emad Shargi, poses for a photo in front of the White House.

iran releases five american detainees in prisoner swap

Trevor Reed’s father, Joey, and his sister, Taylor, speak to reporters in front of the White House.

iran releases five american detainees in prisoner swap

Carine Kanimba’s father, Paul Rusesabagina, a US permanent resident, has been jailed in Rwanda.

iran releases five american detainees in prisoner swap

Joey and Taylor Reed speak to reporters about Trevor Reed’s release from a Russian prison.

iran releases five american detainees in prisoner swap

Teymoor and Tara Tahbaz display photos of their father, Morad, who is currently being held in Iran.

iran releases five american detainees in prisoner swap

A sign hangs at a rally for the families of Americans wrongfully detained abroad.

iran releases five american detainees in prisoner swap

Bahareh Shargi, whose husband, Emad, is currently being held in Iran, speaks to reporters.

iran releases five american detainees in prisoner swap

The families of Americans illegally detained abroad gather in front of the White House.

The announcement came as Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi left for the US, where he will attend the UN General Assembly in New York.

Those released by Iran are believed to be Siamak Namazi, Emad Sharghi, Morad Tahbaz and two unnamed prisoners, all of whom had been held under house arrest at a hotel in Tehran since the swap was agreed on.

Mr Tahbaz’s daughter previously told The National she was “ecstatic” over her father’s release but remained fearful of what comes next.

He was excluded from a deal last year in which Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori returned to the UK after years in Evin prison.

Iran has previously promised prisoner releases but reneged at the last moment, or detained people shortly after freeing them.

Among the prisoners Tehran had demanded in exchange for the five Americans was Kaveh Afrasiabi, who was charged in 2021 of failing to register as a foreign agent.

Tehran confirmed the prisoner swap this month, after the US issued a blanket waiver for international banks to transfer the frozen Iranian funds to Qatar without fear of US sanctions.

But there are still an unknown number of Americans detained in Iran.

The son of Shahab Dalili, a US citizen jailed in Iran, recently underwent a hunger strike outside the White House to protest against his father’s exclusion from the deal.

Mr Dalili also began a hunger strike in Evin prison.

“When news broke out on Thursday that there’s a deal that is being done and my dad is not in it, that was the trigger for me,” his son Darius told The National.

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